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Wheel Pose | Upward-Facing Bow Pose: The Complete Guide

While this backbend may seem a little scary at first, Urdhva Dhanurasana can open your hips and chest—and your practice.


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Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose or Upward-Facing Bow Pose) is a powerful and energetic backbend which helps to cultivate balance and steadiness, while also strengthening your arms, legs, abdomen, and spine.

This pose requires concentrated physical effort and a healthy dose of mindfulness, especially if you have tight shoulders or hip flexors. When those areas are tight, you run the risk of overcompensating in other area, which can potentially cause  injury. Bringing focus and patience into your practice can help you open into your spine deliberately and evenly. “We tend to rush through hard things,” says Natasha Rizopoulos, a senior teacher and teacher trainer with Down Under School of Yoga. “If you go slowly and can be more interested in the actions than in the result, you’ll be better able to find that even curve and do so from a place that is calmer and more composed.”

The real work of the pose often happens before you go up, says Rizopoulos. Focus on the set-up, and you will be physically and energetically more aligned and relaxed as you build to the final shape, which should be an even, rounded curve. “Urdhva Dhanurasana is a challenging posture, but challenging postures are the best places to work on steadying the mind,” says Rizopoulos. “The challenges become a place for you to really focus and pay attention.” That challenge also provides heightened rewards in a renewed sense of energy that can carry you throughout your day.

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Wheel Pose basics

Sanskrit: Urdhva Dhanurasana (OORD-vah don-your-AHS-anna)

urdhva = upward
dhanu = bow

Other names: Upward-Facing Bow Pose

Pose type: Backbend

Targets: Full-body flexibility

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Benefits

Wheel Pose is an energy-boosting posture that can ease back pain. It also stretches your abdomen, chest, shoulders, the front of your hips (hip flexors), and the front of your thighs (quadriceps). It also strengthens your back muscles, the back of your thighs (hamstrings), and your buttocks (glutes).

Other Wheel Pose perks:

  • Builds confidence and opens the heart chakra
  • Improves posture and counteracts the effects of prolonged sitting
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Step-by-step instructions

  1. Begin on your back with your knees bent and your feet planted hip-distance apart and parallel, directly under your knees, which should also be hip-distance apart.
  2. Place your hands alongside your ears with your palms down and your fingers pointing toward your shoulders.
  3. Without letting your feet or your knees splay apart, take an inhalation, then use an exhalation to lift yourself partway and place the crown of your head on the mat. Do not rest any of your weight on your head.
  4. Pin your elbows into your midline, draw your elbows toward one another, pull your upper arms into their sockets, and start to arch your middle and upper back.
  5. Maintaining all these actions, with the next inhalation, press down with your hands and feet, and lift into the pose.
  6. Straighten your arms as much as possible but keep at least a slight bend in your knees.
  7. Make sure your feet have not turned out, and root down with your big toe mounds.
  8. Rotate your inner thighs to the floor, and reach your tailbone toward your feet toward the backs of your knees. Let your head hang freely, and lift your sternum in the direction you are facing while directing your tailbone toward your feet.
  9. To deepen, walk your feet closer to your hands, keeping your forearms and shins perpendicular to the floor and parallel to each other.
  10. Hold for 5–10 breaths (walk your feet out if they had moved in), then lower directly to the floor (without stopping on the crown).
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Explore the pose

If your knees and feet splay as you lift into this pose, it compresses your lower back. One way to counteract that: Loop and secure a strap around your thighs, just above the knees, to hold your thighs at hip width and parallel to each other. To keep your feet from turning out, place a block between them, with the bases of your big toes pressing the ends of the block. As you go up, press your feet into the block.

If you are having trouble pushing up into this pose, lie backward through a folding chair with your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on the floor or on blocks that are stabilized against a wall, and push your back up from the chair. Keep pressing away from the floor until your arms are straight.

Be mindful!

  • Spend time strengthening your wrists before attempting this pose. Distribute your weight evenly between your hands to avoid injury.
  • Modify or avoid this pose if you have high or low blood pressure, a heart condition, vertigo or extreme dizziness, heartburn, ear infection, or certain eye conditions (glaucoma, detached retina, diabetic retinopathy, recent cataract surgery, etc.—ask your ophthalmologist if you are unsure). With these conditions, you may not want to bring your head below your heart.
  • If you have a tendency toward shoulder dislocation, consider doing modifications or Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) instead.
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Wheel Pose variations

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Wheel Pose against a wall

Stand a few feet away from the wall—the exact distance will depend on your flexibility. Place your feet hip-width apart or wider, and press down through your heels. Reach your arms up and alongside your ears, as if you were coming into Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute), and then continue to lift up through the chest as you bend your knees and allow your upper back to bend and your arms to reach back for the wall. Let your head tilt back. You can stay here, or slowly walk your hands down further on the wall. Stay for several breaths at a place where you can comfortably breathe, then walk your hands back up the wall to come out of the pose.

Photo: Eleanor Williamson

Wheel Pose against a wall with support

You can also try this pose against the wall with a rolled blanket or blocks under your hands to either soften the pressure on your hands and wrists or add some height. You can start on the floor on your back, or you can start standing with your back toward the wall and slowly and carefully walk your hands down the wall until your hands meet the support.

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Wheel Pose with a chair

Come to kneeling on the floor with a chair behind you. You may want to put a blanket under your knees for extra cushioning, and put a folded yoga mat on the chair for cushioning and grip. Slowly come back to your forearms on the chair into a backbend. You may stay here, or, if there is room in the chair (like in the Iyengar chair pictured), you may lower your head to the chair and reach your hands up or back. Stay for several deep breaths, then come out of the pose the way you came into it.

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Preparatory and counter poses

Practice this intense backbend at the end of class once your back body has been properly warmed up. Do not skimp on the preliminary backbends. Use more gentle backbends to warm up. Counter with forward bends.

Preparatory poses

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)

Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)

Salamba Bhujangasana (Sphinx Pose)

Salabhasana

Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)

Counter poses

Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)

Ananda Balasana (Happy Baby Pose)

Balasana (Child’s Pose)

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Your body in Wheel Pose | Anatomy

Urdhva Dhanurasana creates a backbend with your shoulders fully flexed over your head. This differs from Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), in which your shoulders extend back away from your torso, explains Ray Long, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and yoga teacher. The muscles that extend your arms in Bow Pose lengthen in Wheel Pose or Upward-Facing Bow Pose. Compared to Bow Pose, in Upward-Facing Bow, your torso is arched higher, taking the front of the body into a deeper stretch. The muscles at the front of your pelvis lengthen more because your hips are in greater extension. Your hands and feet are fixed to the mat, so the energy of straightening the arms and legs is transferred to your trunk, indirectly extending your back and hip and stretching the front of your body.

In the drawing below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.

(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

Urdhva Dhanurasana stretches your hip flexors, including the psoas, pectineus, adductors longus and brevis, sartorius, and rectus femoris. Your abdominals also stretch in this pose.

Temporarily activate the hamstrings to extend your hips. The cue for this action is to attempt to drag the soles of your feet toward your pelvis. Your feet are glued to the mat, so the force of the contraction is transmuted to lifting your hips. Then engage the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus be squeezing your buttocks to extend the femurs and retrovert the pelvis. A beneficial effect of contracting the gluteus maximus is the downward tilt of your pelvis, which protects against hyperextension of the lumbar spine.

Engage the quadriceps to straighten your knees. This indirectly extends your hips because your feet are glued to the mat. They cannot kick out in front, so the quadriceps act like a hydraulic lift to raise your pelvis.

Plantar flex your ankles and press the weight into the soles of your feet, activating the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. Begin by pressing your heels into the mat, and then evert your ankles to distribute the weight evenly into the balls of the feet. This engages the peroneus longus and brevis on the sides of the lower legs. These actions secure the feet on the mat and are the first steps in addressing the splaying of the thighs caused by the gluteus maximus.

Pronate the forearms to press your hands into the mat, spreading the weight from the mounds of your index fingers across the rest of your palms. Contract the triceps to straighten your elbows. Firmly engaging this muscle aids to rotate the scapula away from the humerus and prevents impingement on the acromion process. This gives more room to flex your arms above the head. Activate the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles to externally rotate your shoulders, creating a helical action down your arms and through your elbows.

Draw the shoulder blades toward the midline to engage the rhomboids. Note that the scapulae rotate outward when the arms are above your head. Use the lower third of the trapezius to depress the scapula and draw your shoulders away from your neck. The rhomboids and trapezius muscles combine to exert a tethering effect on the shoulder blades, stabilizing them.

Excerpted with permission from The Key Poses of Yoga and Anatomy for Backbends and Twists by Ray Long.

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Put Upward-Facing Bow Pose into practice

Ready to put this backbend into practice? Here are a few flows to try:

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About our contributors

Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.

Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.